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One of the most potent ways historians connect people to our past is through facial reconstruction. As the technology to reproduce those ancient faces progresses, we’re discovering that we need to be aware of how we use it. Our biases can accidentally shift the appearance of those faces and distort the understanding audiences gain from viewing them.

Meeting our ancestors through facial reconstruction

For years now, I’ve delighted in facial reconstructions of ancient people. To get these faces, experts work from scans of ancient skulls and DNA analysis. Often, they utilize 3D scanning and printing technology as well. When they’re done, they have a striking image: a face from our often-distant past, staring back at us as a statue bust.

How accurate are they? Quite so. For example, Smithsonian offers readers a reconstruction of an ancient Egyptian toddler. The boy died around 3-4 years old around the first century CE. At the time, it was fashionable in Egypt to attach a “mummy portrait” over the face of the mummy, just plastered over the front of the mummy’s head like the person inside is just peeking out. Indeed, this boy got such a portrait for his mummy.

Researchers were interested in finding out how a reconstruction would compare. So they didn’t show the portrait to the person who did the 3D reconstruction until the very end of their work (to get info about hairstyling). And y’all, these images are just amazingly similar. Check out how the reconstruction compares to the mummy portrait of this toddler:

3D facial reconstruction of mummy beside his mummy portrait
Source: Smithsonian.

And if you like this stuff too, you’ll find plenty of these images to look at!

All That’s Interesting offers a neat gallery of all kinds of humans from our distant to fairly recent (archaeologically-speaking) past. SyFyWire shows us the face of a man who died 8000 years ago; archaeologists discovered his head mounted on a pike. Museum Crush has a nice collection as well. Meanwhile, National Geographic concentrates on reconstructions of English people.

Also, the BBC has a good story about how someone reconstructed Queen Elizabeth I’s face – and this one moves!

Looking at these reconstructions feels like meeting our ancestors in a very real way, to me at least. And learning how to make them advances our understanding of the evolution of muscles and bones and whatnot too, so these reconstructions serve a very useful purpose beyond just what I’ve described.

But recently, researchers realized that reconstructors must be careful in how they go about creating their busts. Biases can easily creep into the picture, distorting the images we get.

How biases can distort facial reconstructions

Science News brings us the story of how biases can potentially distort the 3D reconstructions we’re making. This paper they linked cautions us about doing reconstructions of people without DNA or skulls. More than that, even, if the reconstructionist suffers from biases about our ancient ancestors, that could make their reconstruction look different than the evidence actually supports. For example, check out this reconstruction of a 2.8 million-year-old child.

reconstruction comparisons

These two reconstructions were both made from the same skull. The left bust was sculpted without some of the newer evidence and techniques we have now. A scientist provided input for the bust on the right. The one on the left looks a lot more ape-like, while the one on the right looks way more human. And they’re both the same skull.

Obviously, it’s in Creationists’ best interests to portray our ancient ancestors as more ape-like than human; these hucksters can’t even admit that we have ancient ancestors because that fact contradicts all of their beliefs.

That linked paper surprised me by mentioning something dishonest Creationists did because of their biases:

[C]onsider the reconstruction of Lucy presented at the “Answers in Genesis” ministry’s Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. While Lucy was indeed a primate, the decision to reconstruct this specimen as a knuckle-walker is an obvious error.

If you’re curious (like me), here’s what the Creation Museum’s genius trust came up with and proudly set on display here:

Aaaaaaand here’s National Geographic’s take on the same source material:

Obviously, it’s in Creationists’ best interests to portray our ancient ancestors as more ape-like than human; these hucksters can’t even admit that we have ancient ancestors, because that fact completely contradicts all of their beliefs.

Interestingly, the Creation Museum folks mention a number of reconstructions of Lucy’s face. However, none of the three reconstructions they offer on their page looks even remotely close to the one on National Geographic. It sorta looks like they made some really awful troll dolls and called it good.

three dishonest ways to see lucy
(Source.) None of these images seems to exist anywhere online except on Creationist sites.

So naturally, I reverse image searched their three offerings. None appear anywhere at all except on Creationist sites. I’ve no clue how they came up with these images.

Shocked, yes shocked I am!

For what it’s worth, I understand their dishonesty. Creationists can neither admit Lucy as an ancient hominid nor allow her to exist as an ancient ape ancestor. Their biases prevent any kind of honest representation of her.

As reconstructions improve

The last thing dishonest mountebanks like the ones at the Creation Museum want is for us to meet our past like that. More than that, they absolutely don’t want any Creationist children noticing just how human-like our ancestors really were — or realizing how far back that ancestry goes.

(I mean, 300k years ago eight different human species lived alongside ours. Homo sapiens was just one of nine human species at one time! Just imagine how that information destroys Creationists’ indoctrination!)

But it’s not just the ancient past that reconstructions help us understand. As the links above show, doing reconstructions of more modern people also helps us understand how they lived, and how and why they died when they did. Those people step off the pages of history and into our living rooms, so to speak. They’re not just skeletons in the ground or set up in museums.

They’re people who lived, loved, struggled, suffered, and died just like all of us do and will, and many of them died well before Creationists think their god zapped the universe into existence. They had families, households, possessions, and yes, often very different religious beliefs than today’s people hold. And they speak from centuries past to tell us that there ain’t much under the sun that’s unique to today’s people.

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...

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